Last week was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the start of the year 5771. Usually at home I go to services at my synagogue in Poughkeepsie with my family and then have a nice dinner afterwards. In the US, American Jews celebrate 2 days of Rosh Hashanah, while in Israel it is only 1 day. This was news to me. Someone in the program told me the reason is because Americans were never sure when the holiday actually was so they decided to just pick 2 days just in case. Who knows how legit that is. Anyone know?? Maybe Wikianswers could solve this one…
Before arriving in Israel this year I was really interested to experience holidays in the Holy Land. The only holiday I had ever celebrated here in Israel was Chanukah back in December 2006 when I was on Birthright. It was so awesome. I remember lighting a huge menorah in the lobby of a hotel and feeling for the 1st time that everyone around me was just like me. For Rosh Hashanah, the experience was even better. Outside of my synagogue or Hillel no one really mentions the Jewish New Year, but in Israel, it is a huge deal. As I’m still getting used to seeing Hebrew all over the place including road signs, store signs, bus stops, etc. (yes, I know this is obvious but having grown up only seeing/reading Hebrew in the classroom, it’s still so crazy to see the language in every day life), Shanah Tovah, Happy New Year, appeared in store windows. The phrase was exchanged among strangers on the street or at the checkout counter at the grocery store. I probably said it too much just because I was so excited that everyone knew what I was talking about. But whatever.
Since I don’t have any family here, or too many contacts at all outside of the other participants, I opted to spend the eve of the holiday with a host family appointed by my program. All of the participants that chose to do this were put into pairs so each one of us did not have to face the Israelis alone *dun dun duuuun*. I was randomly placed with Dante, a Californian who relocated to NYC to attend NYU and decided to live there permanently. Well, until coming to Israel. Each pair received a host family’s phone number and for us, Dante was the one to contact Guy. Guy arranged to pick us up from the Jaffa apartments (Dante lives there) at 5pm. In true Israeli fashion, Guy called at 5:10pm and told us he was running late. He arrived at 5:45. Guy was a young man, probably in his 30s, and in the passenger seat sat his older father—didn’t quite catch his name—that spoke no English. The language barrier wasn’t too much of a problem with Guy’s father who conversed solely with his son. Although I could understand little to none of what he was saying, I did thoroughly enjoy listening to the old man’s deep voice. It was like each time he spoke a sentence he was telling some Jewish proverb. Probably not the case, though. Since Guy hadn’t told us where he was taking us, Dante and I assumed we were headed to services with the other host families and participants and then off to a dinner at his house in TLV. Wrong. We started driving south and continued to do so until we exited the city and entered the highway backed up with New Year’s traffic. Dante and I sat clueless in the backseat speaking some English between ourselves and some broken Hebrew to the two men in the front. Guy changed the radio station constantly allowing us to hear a variety of music including some Rosh Hashanah songs. Finally, fed up with the selection on the radio, Guy put on his own CD: Beyonce. All the Single Ladies? What?
Finally we arrived at our destination, about 45 minutes later, in the city of Gedera. A wealthy neighborhood just south of TLV, it was one of the 1st settlements of the original Zionists who came to the land back before it was the State of Israel. I feel like that was in the 1800s. You get the idea. Upon arrival, we found out that we hadn’t just traveled to Guy’s house or even his father’s house, but rather his brother’s place, Iman, and his wife, Hila. We entered the front door and instead of attempting to greet the older woman that stood in the foyer, I kindof just presented the bouquet of flowers I had brought, smiled, and walked in. I just figured she didn’t speak any English and I was too flustered to come up with any sort of Hebrew sentence, or phrase for that matter. Dante and I made our way outside passing over some kids playing in the living room to find 5 little girls swinging on a hammock in the backyard. We quickly met all of the aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. that were attending the dinner and discovered that all of the adults spoke nearly perfect English. Phew. Oh yeah, even the older woman AKA the grandma that had opened the door for me spoke fluent English so I definitely could have at least said “Hi! Nice to meet you.” We sat down to dinner and enjoyed each other’s company while stuffing ourselves with an excellent array of different foods.
After we had sufficiently filled our tummies with delicious Jewish foods including of course apples and honey (it is a tradition to eat apples dipped in honey on Rosh Hashanah in hopes of a sweet new year), the kids proceeded to run around the yard and play mostly amongst themselves while the adults sat chatting at the table outside. Towards the end of the evening, I excused myself from the table and made my way to the bathroom. Their house was so beautiful, by the way, very modern. The door was half-open with the light on so I decided to knock 1st and with no response, I slowly opened the door. The family’s 3-year-old son was seated on a stool in the bathroom just sitting there. I didn’t know what to do. I had to think fast. And in Hebrew. The 1st thing that came to my mind was “Atah holech?” “Are you going?” I had no idea how to say “Do you have to go to the bathroom?” so I thought that would do the trick. Well, it did work, but here’s a funny thing about being able to communicate in a foreign language: When people understand you, they respond. Shocking, I know. So, the little boy spewed something so easily in this language I’m struggling so much to express myself in. I was able to infer what he was talking about remembering that I saw his uncle, Guy, running around the house trying to find him. Aha! They were playing Hide-and-Go-Seek and he had decided to hide in the bathroom. Instead of asking him to leave because again, I wasn’t really that sure about what to say, I simply left him alone and pointed in the direction of the bathroom to Guy. Long story short, I revealed a 3-year-old’s hiding spot because I had to go to the bathroom. Oops.
As I said, all of the adults, minus the grandfather, spoke great English, which made it very easy to converse with each and every one of them and tell them about myself and what I’m doing in Israel. During one of the talks, one of Hila’s two brothers, Benny, was explaining to Dante and me about the main idea of all of the Jewish holidays. The family is not very religious—they belong to a reform synagogue—so the dinners and family get-togethers are based more on tradition than religion. Although Rosh Hashanah is an exception to the rule, he eloquently stated the purpose of the majority of the Jewish holidays such as Passover, Chanukah, and Purim: “They tried to kill us; They didn’t succeed; Let’s Eat!” Couldn’t have said it better myself.
All in all, the family was so warm and welcoming to Dante and me that I couldn’t have asked for a better way to celebrate the holiday in Israel. Although in the US we don’t usually exchange gifts on Rosh Hashanah—we save that for Chanukah so we don’t feel so left out around Christmas time—it is tradition to give presents in Israel. This year, since the extended family is still growing, they decided to only give 1 gift to all of the kids and we got one too! It was a mixture of little presents like grape juice, a wine goblet, candies, and other cute things. All of the cousins also wrote cards to each other after dinner and one of them wrote one for me as well. It was really sweet.
Back in TLV, shops were closed, buses didn’t run, and the only thing to do was *sigh* go to the beach. It’s OK everyone, I somehow managed to survive. During the daylight hours, the sun is brutally strong as it actually hurts to stand/walk/run under the intense rays. However, towards the late afternoon, the temperature drops to a cool 80F and regardless, a nice dip in the Med Sea cools you down immediately. The Mediterranean is the perfect temperature on the beach here and although it’s a long 45-minute walk from my apartment, it is so worth it every time. I spent 2 full days at the beach, both on Thursday and Saturday. Mostly everything is closed every Sat. here because of Shabbat so everyone who isn’t observant of the Day of Rest goes to the beach. Check out how crowded it was this week:
|This is taken facing the North towards downtown TLV. We go to the beach near Jaffa because it is closer|
In other news, Israel set its clocks back an hour on Sept. 12, probably the earliest out of any country. Turns out the reason is because of Yom Kippur, which is coming up this weekend. Since so many Israelis fast on the holiday, the government wanted to have the least amount of daylight hours as possible to help everyone get through the fast more easily. However, the early “fall back” in time has not gone undisputed. Apparently, some religious people are complaining that now they won’t have enough time to get home from work to observe Shabbat because of how early the sun sets now. It’s a big religious mess. It doesn’t seem like anything will be done about it this year, but it will be interesting to see if there are any changes to it next year.
In the program news, yesterday was our first day of ulpan, or intensive Hebrew classes, and today began our visits to the various volunteer sites. Tomorrow I will finally visit the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) after a year of anticipation! I’ll absolutely let you know how it goes.
Shanah Tovah UMetukah! Have a Happy and Sweet New Year!